When Alexander McKenzie graduated from the University of Tasmania in 2013, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. In his own words, the young lawyer said that he was “fairly adamant” civil litigation was his calling.
However, Mr McKenzie’s professional path in law my never have been fully realised when he started to feel that the prospect of being a lawyer was simply too much pressure to handle.
Mr McKenzie told Lawyers Weekly that it was during his PLT year when he felt as though he was unable to meet expectations he set himself about what a lawyer was supposed to be.
“I did not cope well at all with the initial pressures of work,” Mr McKenzie said.
Reflecting on that time today, the young lawyer said there were a number of things that made him feel, wrongly, that he was not good enough. He said his confidence was hit by a combination of taking the problems of his client’s matters to heart and also the unshakable belief of needing to be a perfect practitioner straight away.
“To be honest, I think that I attached too much personal responsibility to the conflict in other people’s lives. I was doing petty sessions work and civil litigation, and I spent a lot of time reading about and/or thinking about people in probably the worst situation of their life to date,” Mr McKenzie said.
“I think that I sort of took too much of that on,” he said.
Just like his older brother Simon, Mr McKenzie studied Arts/Law at university. The brothers were born into a family of lawyers, and Alexander spent his PLT year working for a firm in Hobart.
In part, Mr McKenzie believed that the idea he needed to be a fully formed lawyer straight out of law school had something to do with being surrounded by lawyers from as early as he can remember.
“I wasn’t giving myself the time to learn. I expected myself to be at this polished level that just wasn’t realistic and it was unfair on myself.
“My expectations of myself were too high because my general impression of lawyers were those that I had been surrounded by as a small boy – experienced lawyers. I never got the image of what a lawyer was like as they were learning,” he said.
In a strictly vocational sense, Mr McKenzie said his practical training had been an excellent learning experience but the young lawyer needed to put some distance on the impossible standards he had set for himself.
After finishing his PLT, Mr McKenzie decided to take up policy work with a local politician. He admitted to thinking at the time that the professional sidestep was the beginning of the end of his legal career.
“With the normal personal stresses of life on top of PLT, I decided to take some time away from the law and did a couple of other things and ‘pressed pause’.
“Except, I didn’t think it was pressing pause, I thought I was going to stop working as a lawyer,” Mr McKenzie said.
Mr McKenzie said time and space away from being overwhelmed by his own expectations have now allowed him to approach work with a determined focus, rather than focus on being “perfect”.
Today he works for his parents’ law firm McLean McKenzie & Topfer in Burnie, Tasmania. It is at this firm that he has been instrumental in implementing workplace guidelines developed by the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation (TJMF). The best practice guidelines provide a framework for firms to create psychologically safe and healthy environment to work.
“Having started being a lawyer again and enjoying it again, I was talking to Simon and I was saying how much I was pleased to be able to come back to [law] and also pleased to be able to approach it when I was feeling well again; and I hope that other young lawyers, who perhaps stopped working in similar circumstances, would also have that same opportunity,” Mr McKenzie said.
“And then at the start of 2016, the firm made contact with the foundation and I got in touch with the chair of our national committee and said that I’d like to volunteer my time and that my employers were happy for me to volunteer my time as well as become signatories to the guidelines,” he said.
Mr McKenzie is a passionate advocate for the promotion of mental health in the workplace, and although it has been easy introducing the guidelines to his firm, he said formalising a practice of open communication has been invaluable for all staff.
According to the TJMF, depression and anxiety are common in the profession, affecting as many as one in three lawyers and one in five barristers.
The guidelines ensure that there is always a “pressure valve” for lawyers of all seniority to share their struggles and help each other out, Mr McKenzie said.
From a personal standpoint, he added that he has worked hard to shift his internal monologue – but the culture of openness has meant people at the firm are also free to share their concerns beyond the pressures of work.
“Generally speaking, I think what makes it possible to cope well is having those easy, regular conversations. In the event that anything arose for any person, that comforting conversation would be there,” Mr McKenzie said.
This Friday, 19 May, the Governor of Tasmania will host the state’s very first TJMF lecture in Hobart, which Mr McKenzie has helped to organise.
Tasmanian Governor Professor Kate Warner AC, who is a legal scholar and criminal law expert, is the state patron for the foundation.
Retired Supreme Court judge David Porter QC will deliver the keynote address at the Government House on the topic of ‘A career in conflict’.
More information about the event can be found here.